"Nothing is free", "There ain't no such thing as a free lunch", "There is no such thing as free unless the thing in question is without value". We've all heard this before but maybe, just maybe, the old maxim is challenged by some software.
Cadsoft Eagle, DipTrace and Uncle Tom Cobley all do "free" or "lite" so as to get you hooked and, they hope, have you come back and buy.
I've assembled a list of free PCB editor/layout that prove 'popular' software is a dog in many ways. Eagle, for example, is something you either love or hate! People have many things to say about it - often swear words. I know of one user who got so frustrated whilst using Eagle he used to pull at the hair of his temples. He is now permanently bald above his ears!
Few Editor (schematic entry)/Layout software packages are the ideal answer - I have six different packages on my company's servers ranging from Cadence (an expensive beauty), through Layout Sprint, to Express PCB. I use what is most appropriate to the assigned task. Note I use the term 'editor/schematic entry'. None actually 'capture'. Nuance Voice>Text software captures. The nearest to 'capturing' is the Sprint Layout ... which is not free, Osmond (Mac) described below.
So here's a list of free software listed in alphabetical order. Only YOU can decide what is best for your tasks, just as much as choices of transportation differ from person to person. Our goal is Gerbers - the route we choose to get there is variable. Quit the square pegs in to round holes game.
Step 1: CircuitMaker
Besides being a collaborative community for electronic design content, CircuitMaker is Schematic & PCB design software, built upon Altium Designer technology. With a streamlined interface and powerful engine to boot, you’ll never have to worry about your software holding you back. This is a free design tool unlike anything you've seen before.
Step 2: DesignSpark PCB
DesignSpark PCB is a free EDA package offered by RS Components. It has a board size limit or 1 square meter or 1550 sq inches and no limits on pin counts, layers, or output types. DesignSpark PCB includes schematic capture, PCB layout, autorouting, circuit simulation, design calculators, BOM tracking, component creation wizard, and 3d viewing. With the extensive library of Eagle components available online for free, the ability to import component library files makes transitioning and starting in DesignSpark PCB fast and easy. DesignSpark PCB outputs all of the required files to have you PCB made at any PCB manufacturer.
Eagle component libraries, design files, and circuit diagrams can be imported in to DesignSpark PCB. This enables Eagle files from articles or other sources to be converted without having to install Eagle. With practice size-limited Eagle files can be merged to form a larger board!
DesignSpark PCB (https://www.rs-online.com/designspark/pcb-software)
Step 3: EasyEDA (Cloud)
EasyEDA is a free, zero-install, Web and cloud-based EDA tool suite, integrating powerful schematic capture, mixed-mode circuit simulation and PCB layout in a seamless cross-platform browser environment, for electronic engineers, educators, students and hobbyists.
As with any cloud-based system you have to consider the safety of your hard work and the security from a content perspective.
Step 4: ExpressPCB (Vendor Limited)
ExpressPCB is a simple to use PCB layout packager aimed at the first time user and designer. ExpressPCB offers a schematic capture program that integrates with their PCB layout software. The schematic and layout files can be linked to automatically carry changes forward. One neat feature is that you can group parts of a layout together and replicate, rotate, etc. as you would a component footprint.
ExpressPCB is meant to be used with the ExpressPCB manufacturing service and does not support outputting to standard formats directly. ExpressPCB offers a file conversion service for a fee ($100) if standard outputs are required.
Now, however, ExpressPCB files can be converted into formats acceptable to any fabricator of your choice. The answer is at the end of this article.
ExpressPCB (https://www.expresspcb.com) (Vendor limited) (See end)
Step 5: FreePCB
FreePCB is an open-source PCB design package for Windows. It was designed to support professional quality PCB designs but be easy to learn and use. The only limitations to FreePCB are a maximum board size of 60x60 inches and 16 layers, but it can use the FreeRoute web-based autorouter at www.freerouting.net.
Designs can be exported in the extended Gerber format, used by all PCB manufacturers.
Step 6: Fritzing
Fritzing software is an interesting open-source initiative to support designers, artists, researchers and hobbyists to work creatively with interactive electronics and develop electronic projects. Fritzing helps you learn more about electronic circuits, to document your projects and even let’s you prepare them for production.
A unique feature, useful for beginners, is the Breadboard View which populates an onscreen breadboard to aid you replicating it in reality in your work space. Other views include Schematic and Layout Views. A change in one is automatically reflected in the other views.
Lady Ada of Adafruit, the heroine of the electronic D-I-Y community, has started using this, too.
Step 7: GEDA (Linux, Unix, Mac)
gEDA is an open source package that runs on Linux, Unix, Mac and has produced tools which are used for electrical circuit design, schematic capture, simulation, prototyping, and production. Currently, the gEDA project offers a mature suite of free software applications for electronics design, including schematic capture, attribute management, bill of materials (BOM) generation, netlisting into over 20 netlist formats, Verilog analog and digital simulation, transmission line analysis, and printed circuit board (PCB) design layout. Gerber outputs are supported.
gEDA (Linux) (http://www.gpleda.org/)
Step 8: Kicad (Linux/Unix, Mac, Windows, FreeBSD)
The best open source (GPL) EDA package is KiCad, which is available for Linux/Unix, Mac, Windows, and FreeBSD. The KiCad suite of programs includes schematic capture,
PCB layout with 3D viewer and up to 16 layers, footprint creator, project manager, a Gerber viewer. Tools are available to import components from other packages, such as Eagle. KiCad has a built in autorouter and the freeware FreeRouting can also be used. KiCad supports outputting to extended Gerber formats, enabling freedom in selecting the manufacturer you want to use.
Step 9: Osmond PCB (Mac)
Osmond PCB is a free, full featured EDA package for the Mac. Osmond PCB has no limitations and can even work with both Imperial and Metric units in the same design seamlessly. Osmond PCB can import a PDF file to serve as a background image, allowing a design to be matched to the mechanical enclosure or trace an existing design or datasheet.
Osmond PCB supports direct printing of a layout to a transparency for the toner transfer technique for DIY home made PCB fabrication. Extended Gerber outputs are also supported, allowing freedom of choice in manufacturer.
Osmond PCB (Mac) (http://www.osmondpcb.com/)
Step 10: PCBWeb Designer
PCBWeb is a free CAD application for designing and manufacturing electronics hardware. Design multi-sheet schematics with a fast and easy-to-use wiring tool.
Route multi-layer boards with support for copper pours and DRC checking. Integrated Digi-Key Parts Catalogue with Bill of Materials Manager.
PCBWeb Designer (http://www.pcbweb.com/)
Step 11: TinyCAD (Schematic)
TinyCAD is a Editor program to help you draw circuit diagrams. It comes complete with symbol libraries to get you started straight away. As well as being able to simply print your designs, TinyCAD can publish your drawings by copying and pasting into a Word document or saving as a PNG bitmap for the web.
TinyCAD (Schematics only) (http://tinycad.sourceforge.net/)
Step 12: ZenitPCB
A layout design software tool to create professional printed circuit boards. It is limited to 800 pins maximum in the free version, which limits designs to smaller hobbyist or semi-professional use. ZenitPCB is able to export extended Gerber files, allowing PCBs to be made by any PCB manufacturer. is an easy to use PCB layout program that also includes schematic capture and a Gerber file viewer.
As it is limited to 800 pins maximum in the free version, it limits designs to smaller hobbyist or semi-professional use.This pin limitation is less restrictive than limiting board size as in the case of Eagle. ZenitPCB is able to export extended Gerber files, allowing PCBs to be made by any PCB manufacturer.
Step 13: The Freedom Fighters - All We Want Is Gerbers - Viva Analogue ExpressPCB PDF Converter
Don Julien, is a programmer, who dedicates himself to updating the open-source program ‘pdf2gerb’. Ppdf2gerb is a text based ‘PERL’ instruction set that’s meant for converting PDF vector graphics language files to Gerber “Numerical Drilling” (CNC driver) ones - the brainchild of Matthew Swann.
“… in essence, the instructions that are meant to drive a printer are similar in nature to those used for driving an automated CNC machine” …
Three PDF “layer” files are print-created from by expressPCB which are true (basic) vector files. The top and bottom layers are combined into a top.pdf file, in order to produce copper text in the end, then the bottom.pdf only (without text, logos, etc .) and then the silk.pdf layer.
The program code and three object files are fed to a compiler which produces seven Gerber output files. Visual confirmation of translation accuracy to the new format can be made using a Gerber file viewer such as ViewPlot or 'Gerbv' or Pentalogix Viewmate to verify sizing, replication, drill file overlap, etc.
Viva Analog - Gerber files from expressPCB generated PDF’s (http://viva-analog.com/pdf2gerb-and-expresspcb-reality-cheque)
Mathew Swann’s ‘pdf2gerb’ (http://swannman.github.com/pdf2gerb)
Pentalogix Viewmate (http://www.pentalogix.com/viewmate.php)
Step 14: The Freedom Fighters - All We Want Is Gerbers - Copper Connection ExpressPCB Conversion
I've included this software because it has the ability to convert expressPCB PDFs into industry standard formats.
Copper Connection is a modern PCB layout editor for creating printed circuit boards at home or commercially. The software is easy enough for hobbyists and students, but includes rich features for the benefit of professionals. Then, either print the board for etching at home, or export the board to an industry standard format to order from the PCB manufacturer of your choice.
The Home Edition is free of charge and can be upgraded at any time.
This is another way to convert ExpressPCB file format to other file formats. Using Copper Connection software, the ExpressPCB circuit boards can be easily searched, printed, or exported to Gerber and Excellon.
Copper Connection ExpressPCB Conversion (http://robotroom.com/CopperConnection/Converting-Express-PCB-Files.html)
Step 15: Wikipedia - Today's Encyclopedia
There is another list of software in Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comparison_of_EDA_software) which I urge you to read.
It contains a fully comprehensive list of software packages with far greater feature descriptions than my list.
I hope this list serves to highlight other 'free' software packages - choose the one you feel that serves your purposes best. Then you can quit banging square pegs into round holes with you know what!
In September 2009, Farnell bought CadSoft, the makers of the Eagle Schematic-PCB program. Farnell now call themselves “element14”, and present themselves as an engineering resource, rather than just a component supplier.
RS Components opened DesignSpark, a design portal and community for engineers, and offered “DesignSpark PCB”, a free, non-crippled and modified version of Easy-PC; a low end CAD tool from Number One Systems. RS also plan to build in a procurement tool.
Farnell and RS Components are the two big UK based players, and hope to make their engineering portals a haven for engineers who need inspiration, social contact and easy parts procurement.
Advance Circuits offers the PCB Artist derivative of Easy-PC, and has helpful documentation. In particular the Layout Software Part Creation Tutorial explains the library system.
Beware the Cloud
DesignSparkPCB uses internet licence management, so if RS ever turns off the licence server, you can lose your investment in libraries and projects.
Most CAD tools link schematic symbol to footprint by a simple text field; giving you flexibility to use any combination of schematic and PCB tools. Eagle and DesignSpark PCB are different: they lock you in to a self-contained component model which keeps schematic and PCB inside the one program. That is a "we know best" approach, which gives the beginner an easy start, but ultimately limits you.
Someone Took the Words Out of my Mouth!
The Eagle user interface defies normal GUI conventions. Eagle has a scripting language – fiendishly clever – but running scripts is the only way to achieve tasks which might be a simple menu item in another program.